The Night Aunt Gretchen Died

by Daniel Tarker

            Oh, I remember the night Aunt Gretchen died all right. I can replay it back in my head like a movie reel. My fifth-grade teacher once announced to the whole class that I had the memory of an elephant. Said I could remember the most insignificant details with pinpoint accuracy. I wanted to crawl under my desk and die. But she was right. Like did you know our modern conception of Santa Clause as a jolly, old, fat man in a red suit was actually introduced into our culture by a 1931 Coca-Cola advertising campaign? A Swede by the name of Haddon Sundblom drew him up. Looked in the mirror and based Santa on his own face. People forget that. Talk about immortalizing yourself. So, of course I remember the Christmas Eve Aunt Gretchen died. It was a terribly traumatizing night.
            It was raining. All day and into the evening. I remember that detail because I was laying in my bed most of that day reading a collection of HP Lovecraft short stories. I recall thinking that the rain created the perfect atmosphere for his brand of literature – cold, damp gray, brooding, eerie. Perfect. This was before I learned that Lovecraft was a racist and a xenophobe. I don’t read him anymore. Burned the two books of his that I owned in our fire pit. My brother Charlie found the remains of one in the trash – a half-burnt cover of The Mountains of Madness – and came to my room to ask why the hell his little sister would go all Fahrenheit 451 on her favorite horror writer. He thinks he’s smart because he’s enrolled at a technical school to study fire science. I told him the book was the product of a poisoned mind. He said it was a library book – checked out on his account. I explained it was an act of social justice. He called me a fascist. I corrected him. Anti-fascist. And then I flipped him off and continued reading my new favorite horror writer – Thomas Ligotti. But I digress. I digress a lot. I’ll probably digress quite a bit telling this story. It’s just important to remember that on this particular Christmas Eve, I had not yet learned about Lovecraft’s moral deficiencies and appreciated how the sound of water trickling through the gutters of our house amplified the macabre qualities of the world his words built in his stories.
            Aunt Gretchen always traveled down to our house in Woodinville from her home in Rosewood a few days before Christmas with her daughter Stacey. I hated Stacey back then. I don’t mean to judge, but she was a total thot before her mother died. For those Boomers out there, a thot means “that hoe over there”, which in Boomer language basically translates to a woman who dresses and behaves in a very promiscuous manner. Stacey fancied herself a sexy Instagram influencer – except she hardly had any followers – only a thousand or so. She posted videos showing other thots like herself how-to apply make-up, do their hair, or assemble the sluttiest outfit possible for their High School Homecoming Dance. And if she didn’t have a brain-dead how-to video to share, she would fill the digital void with a selfie showing off her ass or tits – because a digital void is far more terrifying than an existential one. It was really a sad thing to behold. Not that I’m judging. She wasn’t always such a social media whore, and she’s certainly not like that anymore, but she was the biggest drug addled Instagram thot I knew back then.
            They say an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but unless Aunt Gretchen had changed significantly since she was a teenager, Stacey had certainly rolled pretty far away from her mother’s sturdy roots. Aunt Gretchen was a wholesome and robust woman who loved Christmas more than any other holiday. Even Halloween if you can believe that? Whenever she came to visit, she would spend an entire day in the kitchen making batches of Christmas cookies based on an assortment of recipes that had been passed down through our family for generations. They were all contained in a leather-bound notebook with pages stained with egg, milk, butter, lemon juice, and other cookie baking spillages. Aunt Gretchen was a sight to behold – a plump, rosy cheeked woman with frizzy, gray hair and an endless supply of ugly Christmas sweaters. And boy was she a whirlwind in the kitchen, bounding between cupboards, drawers, counters, the pantry, the refrigerator, and the oven like a whirlwind. Collecting ingredients for her confections. Preparing them with mixing bowls, wooden spoons, measuring cups, whisks, spatulas, and cookies cutters. Removing batches of finished cookies from the oven and replacing them with sheets of dough ready to expand, harden, and brown into delicious treats.  Goddamn, I miss Aunt Gretchen so much. The entire house always smelled like Christmas when that typhoon of holiday cheer came to visit.
            I used to help her when I was little. Stacey did too. Aunt Gretchen would stand us on chairs by the counter and have us mix batter for whatever type of cookie she was currently whipping into creation – snickerdoodles, gingerbread, lemon, sugar, shortbread. My favorite part was licking the bowl and spoons after we were done mixing. Stacey and I would often fight over the remnants of the batter. But it was friendly competition. We hadn’t grown to hate each other yet. So, Aunt Gretchen would divide the remaining batter evenly between us with a kindly chuckle, and we would eat it all up and then run around the house fueled by the biggest sugar rush of the year. Lord help any fragile decorations in the living room. We lost a few vases and picture frames over the years.
            But I wasn’t much into Christmas cookies anymore the night Aunt Gretchen died. So, I didn’t go into the kitchen to help. I could hear her from my bedroom. The sound of her flying around the kitchen was pleasant and comforting background noise as I laid, curled up under the blanket with my book. In retrospect, I guess we all took her for granted. Aunt Gretchen was just a Christmas fixture in the house much like the assortment of ornaments we put on our artificial tree year after year. We could never imagine there would be a Christmas without her singing the Little Drummer Boy while whirling around the kitchen. That wouldn’t hit us for a year later when – for the first time in my life – I saw my mom get drunk on brandy and eggnog as she reminisced about her big sister’s gigantic heart. My mother is a teetotaler.
            I don’t just have a photographic memory. I also have a phonographic memory. I remember exactly the last song I remember Aunt Gretchen singing in the kitchen that night – which also means it was the probably the last song she ever sang. She was belting out Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I remember because I hate that song. Another holiday fable manufactured by some marketing firm on Madison Avenue rather than emerging from real folk tradition. Once for an assignment in my seventh grade English class, I wrote a version of Rudolph in which a hunter named Vladimir shot the mutant reindeer and mounted his head on the wall of his den, but magically Rudolph’s nose would glow blood red every Christmas Eve and his mouth would open and cry out for Santa and all the other reindeers to come rescue him – a horrific sight which eventually drove Vladimir completely mad due to his guilt over murdering the beloved Christmas character. My teacher hated the story and wrote in the margins that I needed to find more joy in my life. Little did she know how much reading that comment made me smile.
            But as much joy as her admonishment of my story brought me, nothing brought me more joy than Gretchen’s rendition of that song being interrupted and replaced by an argument between her and Stacey. Given that Aunt Gretchen will die soon in this story, I should add that I wish I could have heard her finish the song even though I hated it. I did enjoy her cheerful and booming voice and I really do miss it. But to be honest – and I’m always honest to a fault – at that time the one thing that would bring me the most joy in the world was watching Stacey suffer. Sometimes, I’d even go so far as to write negative comments on her Instagram posts under a fake account just to watch her overreact with defensive replies or – even better – delete her post. I admit it. I was a troll back then. I’ve grown a lot during the past two years.
            Once I realized Aunt Gretchen and Stacey’s amplified voices were the result of a heated argument, I decided it was time to set down my book and go to the kitchen to get a glass of apple cider and watch the fireworks. I was positively apoplectic with glee as I bounded down the stairs imagining Aunt Gretchen telling Stacey off. I know this must sound mean, but I’m just being honest. I was much younger back then. I’m not like that at all now.
            Based on what I heard while running to the kitchen and pouring myself a glass of apple cider, Stacey was asking Aunt Gretchen if she could go out for a drive with a boy she met online. I can still see the look on Aunt Gretchen’s face as she waved her finger at Stacey. Her nose and cheeks were as bright red as the icing she was in the middle of spreading on a batch of Santa shaped sugar cookies. She told Stacey that she was absolutely forbidden from going out with a stranger she just met online. It was Christmas Eve. And for all she knew, this boy could be some kind of serial killer.
            I wish I could say that Stacey responded like a whiney brat, stomping her feet with a high-pitched, ear-piercing rebuttal. But I have to be honest – it’s my fatal flaw – she was firm and poised in her response, deflecting Aunt Gretchen’s arguments with the precision of a lawyer. She said the boy wasn’t a stranger. She had been communicating with him online for over a year. His name was Jayson with a Y. He ran a YouTube channel for master gardeners (though she omitted the fact that it was a channel for master marijuana and mushroom growing gardeners). And he was a freshman at Stanford university. She concluded her argument by asserting that no student at Stanford University had ever become a serial killer, so statistics were on her side. Plus, she’d be home before midnight.
            Aunt Gretchen’s whole face now turned as red as the cookie icing. I wasn’t in the kitchen for the beginning of the argument, but it was clear that Stacey had worn out her patience. Aunt Gretchen blew up. She said that she didn’t trust Stacey not to do something stupid like take some pills and fall off the wagon. The boy may be perfectly fine. He might not be a serial killer. He might just be a junkie. And she wouldn’t be able to take it if Stacey relapsed after seven months of sobriety.
            This clearly triggered Stacey. All the frustration she must have been bottling up underneath her poised veneer burst out. Her arms flew up in the air with her fingers pointed toward the ceiling. If this had been like a superhero movie about a mutant girl, lightning bolts would have shot out of her fingertips and set the whole house on fire. As she did this, she screamed that Aunt Gretchen couldn’t tell her what to do. I’m a seventeen-year-old woman! Then she grabbed her book bag – it was sitting beside her feet as if she really expected Aunt Gretchen to agree to let her go out with a strange boy on Christmas Eve – and she stormed off, each footfall of her knee-high fuck-me boots sounding like a thunderclap, slamming the front door behind her so angrily that the reverberations knocked the Christmas wreath I’d made way back in the fourth grade right off of it. Total thot!
            Aunt Gretchen stood fuming in the kitchen. Her red face had turned an ashen color. The alarm on the oven was beeping, but she didn’t move to save the cookies from burning. I hoped they were the coconut cookies. I hated the coconut cookies. But my mother came to the rescue, rushing in, grabbing the hand mitts off the counter, and retrieving the tray of cookies from the oven. My mother’s physiology was completely different from her sister. She was a slight – one might even say frail – woman with delicate, birdlike features. After setting the tray of cookies on the stovetop, she went to Aunt Gretchen and wrapped her arms around her sister in a gentle hug. She told Aunt Gretchen not to worry. She reminded her that Stacey was still just a teenager with a profoundly underdeveloped frontal lobe.
            Fuck, I hate when my mother uses that teenager refrain. She says that to dismiss me and my brother all the time as if it’s a clinical diagnosis of some sort of mental disorder. I set my glass in the sink and slipped out of the kitchen to get away from my mother’s toxic comforting and find out where Stacey had gone. I passed my father in the living room. He sat in his recliner playing some old Nintendo video game, oblivious to the uproar. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if my dad checked out of the world more than he already had. Would he turn into a mushroom? I looked out the living room window and saw Stacey waiting at the end of the driveway, talking intensely on her cellphone. A black Mercedes Benz pulled up, she jumped in, and the car peeled off down the road. The boy driving had red hair. I saw a flash of it when she leaped into the passenger seat. I remember because I like red haired boys. Stacey was always so lucky. What a thot!
            I went back up to my room and crawled back into bed with my Lovecraft book. But I found it hard to concentrate. If I’m being honest, I didn’t really enjoy watching the fight between Aunt Gretchen and Stacey as much as I expected. I did like Aunt Gretchen. She was a kind old woman who was just worried about her daughter. Her husband – Uncle Jake – died three years before. A drunk driver sideswiped his car one morning on his drive to his job as an electronics salesperson at the Sears department store. It sent him spinning into the divider. The doctors assured Aunt Gretchen that he died on impact. No suffering. But she had become a worrier after the accident. Uncle Jake had offered to drive Stacey to school before he left that morning, but Aunt Gretchen said she would take her. She had to do some shopping anyhow. So, when she saw pictures of the crumpled car slammed into the divider with her husband’s bleeding head resting on the steering wheel, she couldn’t help but imagine what the scene might have looked like if Stacey had been in the passenger seat. That side of the car was completely caved in. The image her mind conjured up terrified her, so she became hyper-vigilant about Stacey’s well-being, constantly fussing over her safety. But I don’t think this had the desired impact. My mother once told me in passing that Aunt Gretchen called her one night after a therapy session while Stacey was in rehab. She said Stacey told the therapist that her suffocating mother drove her to start popping pills. Hearing this devastated Aunt Gretchen.
            Also, despite my recent animosity toward Stacey, I did once like her. I really did. We used to play together all the time when we were little. We went swimming at the local indoor pool every weekend. We loved to pretend that we were mermaids. But then this thing called puberty happened. She started developing a womanly body and became infatuated with boys and all the accessories that go with pursuing that interest – clothes, make-up, jewelry, dances, and toxic social games. None of that stuff interested me at all. I found myself more excited by horror novels, slam poetry meetings, blue hair dye, classic Metallica albums, and tentacle porn. As our interests diverged, we began to spend less time together and even develop a growing animosity toward one another. I saw her as a shallow consumerist whose contributions to the world were as disposable as the wrapper of a McDonald’s hamburger. She saw me as a loser people at school made fun of because I didn’t follow the fashionable lemmings on Instagram or TikTok. But even though I couldn’t stand the person Stacey had grown into, I still felt bad for her as I laid in bed replaying the fight between her and her mom in the kitchen. She just wanted some freedom. I rolled over and pulled the covers tightly around me. I thought about hugging and kissing her. I also thought about slapping her across the face. I couldn’t figure out which I wanted to do more. Luckily, I fell asleep before I came to a decision.
            My mother’s voice woke me up. She was calling me down for dinner. She had made her famous Christmas Eve fondue with an assortment of bread, sausages, and vegetables to dip into the bubbling hot Swiss cheese sauce with our skewers. We all gathered around the table – my mom, dad, brother, and Aunt Gretchen. Stacey’s chair was empty. While the rest of us picked up our skewers and began gathering ingredients to dip into the fondue, Aunt Gretchen just stared at her plate. It had a pretty pattern on it, but not that pretty. She was clearly not in a festive mood. My mother asked how she was doing. Aunt Gretchen forced a smile and said she was all right in an over-the-top sing-songy voice.  But my mother saw through her assurances. She sees through everything. She asked if Stacey had called. Aunt Gretchen shook her head and apologized. She said the fondue looked splendid as usual, but she was exhausted from baking all the Christmas cookies. She just needed to go take a nap. We watched her lumber out of the dining room. The weight of her body hung unusually heavy on her bones.
            We continued our dinner, enjoying my mother’s famous fondue, trying to maintain as festive a mood as we could given the circumstances. Afterward, we all dispersed to our separate corners of the house to pursue our individual interests. My dad returned to his video games. My brother went into the garage to tinker on his motorcycle. My mom peeked in on Aunt Gretchen before retreating to the den to watch The Great British Bake-Off on Netflix. I returned to my room to resume reading my book in-between going down interwebs and social media rabbit holes.
            Sometimes I try to stay up as late as I can – even on Christmas Eve. I hadn’t believed in Santa Clause in years. Not since I learned about his connection to Coca Cola branding. Remember that? So, I stayed up late that night. Even listened to my parents sneak out of their bedroom to put some gifts under the tree in an effort to keep that magical holiday illusion going for one more year. I thought it was irrational, but sweet.
            While cruising Instagram, I saw several of Stacey’s posts from earlier in the evening. She shared a selfie of her and her YouTuber licking a vanilla ice cream cone together. What a gross thot! So, I went onto one of my troll accounts and posted a comment under the picture warning them about the dangers of catching mouth herpes from strangers. I’m not sure either of them saw it. By the time I finished posting, I heard the distinctive sound of somebody trying to sneak into the house through the front door. Except they weren’t very good at it. They were whispering and giggling like silly teenagers with underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes. Damn it, I’m beginning to sound like my mother.
            I turned off the light in my bedroom and cracked open my bedroom door to see if I could spy on Stacey and her redhaired YouTuber boy toy. I watched as their silhouettes crept to the top of the stairs and slid into the guestroom where she stayed when visiting. Once inside, they erupted with muffled laughter like they had pulled one over on everybody – except they hadn’t actually pulled one over on everybody, had they?
            I grabbed an empty water glass and pressed it up against our adjoining wall to listen to what was happening. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I’d seen it in movies, so it was worth a try. Amazingly enough, it did. I could hear them shuffling about, slipping off their clothes, and crawling on the squeaky bed – whispering and tittering like they were actually getting away with secretly doing the nasty in our guest bed on Christmas Eve.
            Judging by the erratic squeaks of the bed and the shuffling of the covers, it sounded like they were having a hard time finding a comfortable position. As I listened, I found myself experiencing a mix of emotions – revulsion, curiosity, titillation. These feelings were only amplified once I heard them find their rhythm – squeak, moan, squeak, moan, squeak, moan – and I began to hear myself breathing heavily along with them. Then, suddenly, Stacey let out a cry of shock and terror. It made me jump away from the wall and drop the glass on the floor. It broke into several pieces. Had she heard me breathing? I went to pick up the glass shards, but I realized one of my hands was in my pants – and I needed a moment to process this.
            Then I heard a commotion in the hallway as Stacey rushed out of her bedroom and met my parents scrambling out of theirs to find out what was happening. I hoped she hadn’t heard the glass scaping against the wall or my heavy breathing. But I could tell she wasn’t talking to my parents about me. She was asking for Aunt Gretchen. Where did she go? How did she get out of the room so quickly? Relieved, I opened my door and saw Stacey looking frantically up and down the hall as my mother tried to calm her down.
            We later learned that Stacey was having a grand old time with her fiery headed YouTuber when she looked up and saw her mother standing at the end of the bed with a disapproving scowl and furious eyes. Embarrassed at being caught in such a scandalous position, she let out a scream and pushed the YouTuber off her so she could scramble to get some clothes on. By the time she threw on a T-shirt and opened the door, her mother was gone. Stacey kept asking: how the hell did she disappear so quickly?
            My mother ran downstairs to her sister’s room while my dad stood sleepily by his bedroom door as the YouTuber slipped past him and Stacey and ran down the stairs. A look of pure indignation spread across Stacey’s face as she watched her lover flee, slamming the front door behind him, knocking my wreath on the floor again. Thot! Then my mom let out an even more terrifying cry than the one Stacey had made. This was for sure the loudest Christmas Eve ever! Even my brother – who usually sleeps with noise cancelling headphones on – ran downstairs with us to find out why mother was so upset.
            My mother later told us that she knew something was wrong as soon as she opened the door to Aunt Gretchen’s room. She felt a chill in the air. She also said she smelled gardenias. But there were no flowers in the room. She said this was a sure sign someone was deceased. So, she felt a lot of trepidation as she walked over to Aunt Gretchen and nudged her shoulder. And the trepidation grew when Aunt Gretchen didn’t respond. My mother looked closely at her face and touched her arm. Aunt Gretchen wasn’t breathing, and her skin was frighteningly cold.
            By the time my mother was done screaming, we had arrived. My brother rushed her out of the room while my dad sluggishly walked over, sat down on the edge of the bed, and took Aunt Gretchen’s pulse. After the longest minute I’ve ever experienced, he looked over at me and asked if I could call 911. He said Aunt Gretchen was gone. I hate stupid euphemisms that try to soften the reality of situations, but I decided this wasn’t the best time to share this. I ran to get my cellphone.
            The coroner’s report stated that she had died of a heart attack earlier in the night, long before Stacey and her YouTuber had snuck into the house. This led Stacey and my mom to speculate that it was Aunt Gretchen’s ghost who materialized at the end of the bed. I’m not a believer in ghosts even though I love horror fiction, but I’ve refrained from casting doubt on this narrative they’ve concocted. I really have. The belief that the last thing her mother saw on this mortal plane was her having a fling with a redhaired YouTuber has helped Stacey make some profound life changes. She deleted all her social media accounts. Enrolled in college. Joined a church. And she’s not a thot anymore. She’s an evangelist. So, we still hate each other. But at least she makes delicious cookies every Christmas Eve with that book of recipes she inherited from Aunt Gretchen.

© 2021 Daniel Tarker  All rights reserved.

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